I’m not a Witch that often works with the the dead. For me the draw of Paganism (and more specifically Witchcraft of the Wiccan variety) has always been the gods. I cast my circles and call upon deity, inviting the ancestors has never felt right to me for a variety of theological reasons. Many other Witches and Pagans center their practice around ancestors and other souls beyond the veil, but it’s just never appealed to me.
Even though I don’t actively work with the dead, they do sometime make appearances in my practice. Not surprisingly they show up a lot at this time of year. My Samhain rituals often involve reunion with those in the Summerlands, and I often simply “feel” the spirits of friends and family in late Autumn.
Over the last couple of years the Witch in me has reasserted its self. Some of it’s simply because I think Gardner-derived Witchcraft works better (your own personal results can, would, and should vary). I have tried more eclectic paths but it’s British Traditional Witchcraft and the Gardnerian Tradition that call to me the strongest. There’s another reason though, and it’s been on my mind a lot the last few months . . . . I simply feel a connection with many of Wicca’s earliest practitioners.
Two years ago at a Samhain Ritual my wife and I led, we created an avenue of the dead. It was designed to mostly serve as a place for our ritual friends and family to place pictures of those that they had lost over the years. As an aside I decided to include a few Craft elders. There were the obvious candidates of course: Doreen Valiente, Gerald Gardner, Alex Sanders, and Monique Wilson*, but I also included a lot of folks outside of my own tradition, some expected some not. The Feri Tradition has never particularly called to me but it just feels right to honor Witches like Victor and Cora Anderson. I’m even drawn to individuals like Robert Cochrane. who were completely dismissive of my own tradition during their lifetime.
After I took down the pictures of those individuals and brought them back home with me I found myself wondering exactly what to do with them. Sure most of my pictures were simply photocopies or cut-outs from then annual Witches’ Year and a Day Calendar but throwing them out just felt wrong. For several months they sat in a drawer, but then something compelled me to get them out and put them up on my coven’s (bookcase) shrine. As I put up each photo I talked a bit to each soul beyond the veil, and invited them all to our rituals, if they wished to attend. I have yet to see Doreen Valiente materialize in front of me, but I have sometimes felt the occasional stare of a spirit from outside our circle.
I think of the Craft Elders currently in our ritual room as my Mighty Dead, though definitions of that phrase vary. I personally limit my Mighty Dead to individuals who self-identified as Witches and Pagans during their lifetimes. It’s nice to think that Dion Fortune or Arthur Edward Waite might want to stop by, but they weren’t Pagans, and I’m not sure they would actually be comfortable in our circle. I don’t think this is a show of disrespect, just the opposite really. I respect some of my influences so much that I wouldn’t want to put their souls in a situation that would be a bit strange to them.
Other Definitions of the Mighty Dead Stolen from the Internet:
Christopher Penczak: “Though the term has been used to refer to any of our spiritual ancestors of note, such as founders, teacher and authors, I use the term Mighty Dead to refer to the ‘enlightened’ ancestors of the Witchcraft and Pagan traditions. They are those who passed on with a state of awareness, of spiritual ‘might’ that they can step of the cycle of rebirth and incarnation. They are akin to the Saints of the Christian traditions and the Bodhisattvas of the Buddhist traditions. -From The Wild Hunt 10/18/13
M. Macha NightMare: “The Mighty Dead are said to be those practitioners of our religion who are on the Other Side now, but who still take great interest in the activities of Witches on this side of the Veil. They have pledged to watch, to help and to teach. It is those Mighty Dead who stand behind us, or with us, in circle so frequently.” From: The Witches Voice 10/22/01
Crystal Blanton: I personally see the Mighty Dead as those who have gone before me, of blood and of kin, and they always have a place at my table. My ancestors are an important piece of my practice, and not just out of respect, but out of connecting to lineage of power that runs through me. It is especially important to me as a Black woman because I am so disconnected from lineage and ancestry. Our history in this country has not allowed us to preserve some of the stories, magic, or familial ties of our culture, therefore leaving many of us disconnected from the core of past and present. So it is important for me spiritually to find a way to tap into that and make it a part of my practice to connect to those people and stories I have not been able to have.
Sara Amis: The Mighty Dead to me connotes the dead of the Craft, but also notable people you feel an affinity to and possibly ancestors as a category…in any case, Ancestors with a capital A who are quasi-divine. I see this as similar to the Ghedes in Vodoun or the Egguns in Santeria.
Kalisha Zahr: Each year on Hallowe’en night – after all the children have come around for “Trick or Treat” – I bring in my lit carved pumpkin from the front porch and place it on the hearth. Then I take some time to sit and watch the flickering flame as i remember and thank the Mighty Dead – my personal ancestors, friends, and Craft members who have passed on. Eventually I stand up and light the candles I’ve placed on my ancestor altar to honor and bless them. Although some of the departed are never very far from me, I find that this simple ritual acknowledgment gives me great peace and serenity. I do this alone in addition to my coven’s Samhain – which is my favorite Sabbat!”
I don’t place my Mighty Dead upon a metaphorical altar, they were just people after all, but they were all shining lights in the Craft; powerful magicians and strong Witches all. In a weird sort of way they all remind me a lot of my parents. When people say something nasty about Uncle Gerald I tend to get a bit riled up, like I would if someone were talking shit about my Dad. Some writers place the Mighty Dead a step above average humans, that’s a step too far for me. I don’t think my Mighty Dead have any special abilities or are semi-divine. I simply see them as spirits who might like to lend their energies to my coven’s rites and view our rituals. (If you are wondering if I ever picture Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente as shimmering “Force ghosts” a la Star Wars, the answer is yes )
Unlike some, I don’t work with the Mighty Dead. I feel the gods are transcendent, but we humans, even in spirit form are not. A goddess like Artemis can literally be in two or a hundred places at once if she chooses to be, I don’t think the dead can pull of this trick. I assume, as human souls, that they have places to go and people to see, and there’s no need to pull and push them in a dozen different directions. I also think it’s a bit presumptuous to assume they would want to come and see me. The circle is always open for them, but their presence is never specifically called upon.
Often a part of any discussion involving the Mighty Dead are the Beloved Dead. My Beloved Dead are those I personally knew in this life and loved. I don’t have an extensive list of Beloved Dead (I’ve been fortunate) but it does include my Grandparents and my cat Princess. My involvement with the Beloved Dead is minimal. I choose to respect the religious beliefs of my Grandparents (who were Christians) and I’m not sure they want to spend a whole lot of time in a Witchy circle. Besides, I also assume they have things to do. I call them at Samhain (or Samhains depending on how many rituals I have on the calendar for the sabbat) and I think that’s enough.
As the years roll by there will be a time very soon when my Beloved Dead and Mighty Dead are one and the same. Over the past ten years we’ve lost a whole host of Craft and Pagan elders. I was lucky enough to meet most of them, and one or two of them might have even known me by name. I wasn’t close enough to them to consider them Beloved Dead, but I know that one day soon the two will overlap.
I was discussing the Mighty Dead with a friend the other day and mentioned that I wanted to do something for Morning Glory Zell and Margot Adler this year. He suggested waiting a year, and letting them sort out their new existence before honoring them as Mighty Dead in our coven. I agree, and while we will be honoring both souls (and Donald Michael Kraig) this Samhain, we will do so quietly as to not disturb them.
This year at Samhain I will officially be “installing” the Mighty Dead in our coven’s sacred space. I want more than their pictures on a wall, I want to share some of their stories and accomplishments with my coven. I don’t want their stories lost or forgotten. I want my Mighty Dead to be seen as they were in this life, mighty.
The first two pictures in this piece come from my wife and I’s recent trip to Edinburgh. The first one is from Edinburgh’s “underground city” and the second from a church cemetery near the Royal Mile. The third photo is obviously from my coven’s shrine/altar and features Doreen Valiente and Gerald Gardner, though not as “Force ghosts.” The doorway shot is from the Greyfriar’s Cemetery also in Edinburgh.
That last shot is of my grandparents, Mick and Marie Mankey. They remain the kindest and finest people I’ve ever known. I still think of them daily. Every year on their anniversary my Grandmother would put her wedding gown back and pose for a picture with my Gramps. It always fit. I love them both so very much.